Reasonable people can disagree about the best solution to illegal immigration. But everyone can agree that, whatever the solution, it should not compromise the right of ordinary Americans to work. Yet that's precisely what a bill sponsored by U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., would do.
The bill, called the SAVE Act (Secure America through Employment Verification), is opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- a California Democrat. To overcome her opposition, the bill's sponsors have gotten 181 fellow legislators, including five Michigan Republicans, to sign a discharge petition.
Should they obtain another 44 signatures when they return from recess this week, they will be able to over-rule Pelosi and bring the bill to the House floor for a vote. If the House approves the bill, a virtual certainty if it comes for a full vote, it will give a tremendous boost to an identical bill in the Senate -- and become virtually unstoppable, since neither party wants to appear soft on immigration in an election year.
That would be a terrible outcome for American workers.
The bill's most controversial aspect is that it would make the E-verify program mandatory. Currently, employers can choose to enroll in this program and verify the work eligibility of new hires against the federal Social Security database. About 43,000 employers nationwide -- or less than 1 percent -- have enrolled.
But if this bill becomes law, within four years every employer nationwide would be required to verify the work credentials of its entire work force, including 160 million existing workers plus 60 million new hires. Since the program prior to the huge proposed expansion has a 5 percent error rate, this would mean that more than 12 million legal workers could potentially be thrown out of work by no fault of their own. Nor will improved technology eliminate these errors, as its authors claim, because most of them are the result of data entry mistakes.
What's more, workers -- not their employers -- would have to clear things with Uncle Sam when their credentials are thrown into question. To do so, they'll have to deal with the same agencies that issued visas to 9/11 terrorists after they flew planes into buildings. But even if one assumes that the program has 100 percent success in catching every one of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, that would still translate into one American worker being hurt for every illegal snagged. That is a lousy deal.
But the fundamental problem with the program is that it would require workers to prove that they are eligible to work rather the government to prove they are not. We're all guilty until proven innocent.
Using employers to crackdown on illegals may seem like a good idea. But there is no program that can surgically incise illegals from the workplace while leaving everyone else unscathed. The cleanest way to slash the population of such workers is by opening more avenues for them to legally work here through a guest worker program.
This is the approach that was close to becoming law as part of the comprehensive immigration reform effort last summer before it got ambushed by Rush Limbaugh and his talk show comrades. If the House leadership can't push sensible reforms now -- it at least ought to stop such pernicious ones as the SAVE Act. And President Bush can help by threatening to veto this train wreck.